“My Heart is Ripped to Shreds”: Sarah Aaronsohn’s Moving Letter

The letter from over a century ago in which Sarah Aaronsohn writes of the tragic death of her beloved friend, Avshalom Feinberg.

July 14, 1917

My dear Rivkati and Alex!

You cannot imagine, my beloved ones, how many times I have begun writing to you and stopped. I myself do not know why. I have a burning desire to speak to you and tell you many things, as we have not talked for many eons, but suddenly I feel some kind of opposition and do not write.

During my silence, which has lasted over a year and a half, we have experienced and undergone all kinds of happy events and also, or primarily, unhappy ones. But there is nothing that can be done, it seems this is the way of the world, not everything can happen together, and the suffering always overpowers the joyous occasions.

This is the beginning of Sarah Aaronsohn’s letter to her beloved siblings who were in America at the time, a letter written only a few short months before her death.


Sarah Aaronsohn, a photograph from the NILI Museum


Sarah wrote the date on the Hebrew letter in French, which may have been to mark the historical connection to the French Bastille Day and the Jewish people in the Land of Israel’s dream of independence. Sarah, one of the heads of NILI – a Jewish underground espionage movement which worked in favor of the British and against Turkish rule in the Land of Israel – longed for that day and dedicated her life to it.

In her letter, Sarah sorrowfully relates the story of the death of Avshalom Feinberg, the founder of NILI, who she had a special relationship with and who was also engaged to her sister Rivka:

I wish to begin, and I do not know what to call the beginning, so I will begin with the first which is most beloved.

Regarding our dear Avshalom, I want to begin by telling you in detail what happened to him, because according to what I know from Rivka’s letter to Penina Levontin, you do not know any details about our deceased beloved one, and it is also so hard to talk about it because my heart is ripped to shreds, and because the sorrow is so extremely great and terrible.

My dear ones, you knew our Avshalom very well, and you knew how much the young man wanted to make contact with the English over the question of our Jews and Jewish matters, and you know that he arrived, and when he returned to the Land of Israel hoping for good and for success, the connection was suddenly cut off, no one knows why that happened.

Perhaps it is due to lack of trustworthiness of the people who go down to the beach and many other reasons, but when communication ceased, the beloved one suffered greatly, and began to look for ways to travel by land, if not by sea. And you are aware of his fate. His journey to the desert was solely a search for a way to meet up and to get close, he also went to Constantinople, and he was never able to rest and he chose the most dangerous ways, and even if people dared comment, it was of no use.

And one day he decided together with Aaron [Aaron Aaronsohn, Sarah’s brother and a fellow member of NILI], that Aaron would travel to Constantinople and attempt to continue from there and reach their destination. And that is what happened, and as you see, Aaron finally arrived, but it took a long time, the whole matter took 6 to eight months, and our beloved one lost patience and began once again to search for dangerous ways. Even though we pleaded with him, it was to no avail, as much as I begged him and showed him how dangerous the way is, and I saw in advance that he will lose his head in this manner, and it was impossible to deter him from his idea. My dear ones, our tragedy is too great to bear, and it is extremely intense and deep.


The first page of Sarah Aaronsohn’s letter, the National Library collection
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Sarah relates everything she knows about Feinberg’s death, expresses her personal pain, and attempts to comfort her younger sister Rivka, Avshalom’s fiancée:

And our dear one went out into the desert with another friend who liked to endanger himself, who is actually the head of a family… and they set out, and on the way they encountered a patrol of Bedouins who shot at them and pursued them, and the dear one fell dead, the other was only injured in three places, and after much effort he reached the English station, and they transferred him to Egypt, where he met up with Aaron, lay in hospital and recovered, and after he recovered Aaron sent him here to work and continue our holy mission, as he spilled his blood and gave up his young life for an idea which was incredibly holy to him.

The sacrifice is too great, and even if we were to be successful in our work, and the salvation of Israel should come through such a sacrifice, believe me my dear ones that I would not desire our dear sacrifice. But this seems to be the fate of those who have aspirations for their nation and their land, and in addition, the beloved one went of his own volition, wholeheartedly, and he know just how dangerous it was, no matter how much we talk and how many tears we shed, it will be insufficient to calm the heart, or satiate it, the suffering is very, very great, and why should I come and pour salt on your wounds.

My dear child Rivka, you must be more miserable and suffering much more than all of us, but I feel you and am here together with you suffering and crying about your sad fate. My child, you have no idea how much your beloved one and I connected during the time we were together, I was the only one with whom he could share what was on his heart, his thoughts and hopes, and I helped him a lot, I encouraged and strengthened him, and I am suffering very greatly from the tragedy. But can we come and complain before anyone? This is what our fate decreed for us, that we will not have the merit of seeing greatness and action from our dear one who aspired and suffered throughout his young life. But our constantly ongoing work will always serve as a reminder, and will be named after the beloved instigator, Avshalom. It will soon be six months since his death.

He passed away on the 20th of the month of January. Believe me my dear ones that I am talking and writing about his death, yet it is still unclear to me and it is impossible to become accustomed to his death. His family still know nothing, we do not want to tell them until after the war, as why should they suffer at a time when it is impossible to move or do anything.


Page two of Sarah Aaronsohn’s letter, the National Library collection
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Sarah, who coordinated all the NILI underground’s activities in Ottoman Palestine at the time, tells about the dangers and the hope. A month before she sent this letter, on June 4th, 1917, the French government published a memorandum which “considers it to be an act of justice and correction of a wrongdoing to assist the revival of the Hebrew nation in its land, which it was exiled from hundreds of years ago”. It could be that Sarah heard about this declaration and refers to it in the letter:

I have a large role in the work here, and if we have to endanger ourselves, my dear one, I think not of it. The work is dear and holy to me, you must understand. If our dear one would have been able to hear the good news, that we were promised the Land of Israel, what would he not do in sheer joy? And we have merited to see it due to his idea and his head which he endangered.


Page three of Sarah Aaronsohn’s letter, the National Library Collection
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Later in the letter, Sarah describes the dismal condition of the “Station for Agricultural Experiments in Atlit”, the life work of the agronomist Aaron Aaronsohn, a place for agricultural experiments as well as the location the NILI spy network operated from. Sarah Aaronsohn also describes the wretched condition of the Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel at the time under the yoke of Turkish rule:

You are certainly aware of the situation of the deportation of our Jews from Jaffa, their poverty and suffering are inconceivable. Hundreds and thousands of people were simply taken and destroyed to their very core, and people who did not know what aid was and who lived like princes, now need help. The poverty in the cities of Jerusalem, Tiberius and Safed is also horrendous.

It is impossible to comprehend what has happened in Israel. The produce this year was also very poor. The winter crop was completely unsuccessful, and there are those who claim that the hunger will be terrible this year. And now, my dear ones, regarding the station.

We have not received a penny from there for over two years, at a time when other institutions received money from outside of Israel and we did not receive a penny, it therefore seems that they simply decided not to believe in the station… the only thing is for you to take action with publicity in order to send us money, money, because in such a time money is crucial.


Page four of Sarah Aaronsohn’s letter, National Library Collection
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Sarah ends the letter with a request from Rivka and Alexander to lobby the Americans and to try to raise money for the station, she adds words of encouragement to her beloved ones and signs: “Farewell, your Sarah”.

Farewell to you and warm kisses, and greetings to all the American friends with a request to work more and more for the station, paint the situation to be as bleak as possible, it will not be worse than the truth.

And you my children, and especially Rivka, keep strong, because your friend and beloved fell like one of the heroes, in his hope to save his nation and his land, we can be proud of such a friend, and we must bear the tragedy silently.

Warm kisses and make an effort my dear ones,

Farewell, your Sarah


Page five of Sarah Aaronsohn’s letter, the National Library Collection
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Only a few months after this letter was sent, in early October 1917, Sarah Aaronsohn was captured by the Turks and brutally tortured. She eventually shot herself to prevent them from extracting information from her about the underground, its activities and members in further interrogations. She hovered between life and death for three days until her soul departed.

Less than a month later, on November 2nd of the same year, the British foreign minister, Lord Arthur James Balfour sent Lord Walter Rothschild the famous declaration according to which “His Majesty’s government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”. Sarah Aaronsohn, who was so close to this moment, did not see it. A century has passed since her death, and the death of her beloved, Avshalom Feinberg.

Thanks to Dr. Gil Weissblei for his assistance in research for the article. 

How the Conquerors of the Land of Israel Spent their Time Between Battles: Hasty Photography, Football, and Boxing

A photo album taken by an unnamed British soldier during the First World War reveals the route of his unit.

The Conquerors of the Land Photographed in the Shade

The First World War was the first time in world military history that soldiers of all armies could carry a personal camera with them and document not only the fierce battles they encountered, but some of their unit’s experiences in their free time.

For the Protestant British soldiers stationed on the front line in the Middle East who beheld the Land of Israel for the first time, this was a golden opportunity: a combination of religious fervor (which intensified as the capture of Jerusalem became increasingly imminent) together with a healthy dose of curiosity about the new-old world which surrounded them, caused many of those equipped with cameras to document, in many dozens of albums, the natives of the land, its exotic scenery, as well as “down time” between resting, training and fighting.

Several of the private albums of soldiers from both sides of the conflict are stored in the National Library. One of the most interesting of them was given a name in the Library catalog which conceals this fact: “The Photographs of a British Soldier from the First World War in the Land of Israel”.

As the album name reveals – the photographer’s identity is unknown, but it appears to be a soldier in the 74th cavalry battalion of the British Army. The soldier, presuming that it is a single soldier, mapped out the route his unit advanced through photographs which he took and pasted into an album.

Most of the photographs are from Jerusalem and the surrounding area – with captions stating the subject of the photograph.



Hebron Road


German Hospice


The Western Wall


Jerusalem looking toward Mount of Olives


Hill of Temptation


Mary Magdalene Church Jerusalem


Dome of the Rock


Valley of Judgement Jerusalem


As we delve further into the album we discover that the writing disappears and the photographs depicting central sites in the Land of Israel are replaced by a different type of photograph; depicting daily life in the battalion, and primarily the various ways the soldiers passed their time. The majority of the photographs appear to have been taken in Alexandria in Egypt, where the British Army camped prior to setting out to capture the Land of Israel in 1917.


The battalion dog
A musical interlude
The Gang
The military orchestra
Fighting in His Majesty’s Army

:View the entire album


Special: 150 Years at the Western Wall

How did the Western Wall look before its liberation in '67? What did it look like 100 years ago? And 150 years ago?

How did the Western Wall look before its liberation in ’67? What did it look like 100 years ago? And 150 years ago? Rare photographs from the National Library of Israel’s collections show a different Western Wall than the one we know today. One area for prayers became two and the uniforms of those who visited and guarded changed, yet one thing has stayed the same: the Jewish people’s yearning to visit and pray at this most revered of sites.

The identities of those who photographed the site also changed over the years, ranging from renowned international photographers in awe of the extraordinary relationship between man and stone, to tourists and pilgrims visiting the Wall as part of a journey to the Holy Land, to local and foreign soldiers simply there as part of their service. The images also reveal the history of photography itself: black and white photographs, hand-colored photographs, changing methods of printing and developing.

Join us on this historic journey to the Western Wall.

Resolving Biblical Contradictions – in Translation

The first Hebrew translation of the famous work El Conciliador also served as the translator’s own personal diary

“I was happy and joyful as my beloved daughter was born…and died on the night of the 5th”

For thousands of years, Jews and Christians alike have turned to the Bible as a means of resolving the many contradictions in their lives. In the 17th century, the Rabbi and diplomat Menasseh Ben Israel turned the tables: he wrote a book named El Conciliador (The Conciliator), in which he attempted to resolve the contradictions within the Bible itself. This was a tremendous task, and his target audience did not consist only of fellow Jews.

Click here for the complete manuscript online

In El Conciliador, Menasseh Ben Israel addresses two potential audiences: Christian scholars and clergymen interested in gaining more knowledge about the Jewish faith, and the descendants of the Conversos in Spain and Portugal. The latter wished to return to their Jewish roots after many generations during which they (and their ancestors) were forced to live as Christians.

A copper engraving by the Jewish artist Salom Italia depicting Menasseh Ben Israel encircled by Latin writing. The print, whose dimensions are 13×19.5 cm, was apparently produced soon after the engraving was done in 1643. From the Abraham Schwadron Collection at the National Library

The book follows a consistent pattern: the author presents two contradictory Biblical verses, describes the precise contradiction he found in them (as the reader does  not necessarily spot the contradiction or in some cases he or she may identify another contradiction instead), and then attempts to “resolve” the contradiction: he makes use of both Jewish and non-Jewish sources, occasionally quoting luminaries such as Seneca or Plato, thereby displaying extraordinary in-depth knowledge coupled with interpretive skills.

It is interesting to note that when Menasseh Ben Israel refers to Plato as an authority he does not hesitate to claim that the father of philosophy was directly influenced by the Jewish religion and that many of his conclusions are based on the Bible.

The Latin translation of Menasseh Ben Israel’s El Conciliador was completed in 1633 and shows the book’s importance to the Christian public. From the National Library of Israel collection

Like many of Menasseh Ben Israel’s endeavors, El Conciliador was crowned a tremendous success. The book was re-published over the years in a number of editions, and was even translated into other European languages. It established its author as an authority on Jewish sources, and earned him the title “Ambassador of the Jews”. In the wake of the book’s success, an extensive exchange of letters began between Menasseh Ben Israel and Christian scholars throughout the continent. It took over 200 years for El Conciliador to be translated into Hebrew.

“Resolving” the Contradictions of the 19th Century in Hebrew

Little is known about the life of Mr. Raphael Kirchheim, who translated El Conciliador into Hebrew. We know even less about why this 19th century German-Jewish scholar chose to undertake this task. It is possible that as a Jew affiliated with the Reform movement, which attracted many German Jews in the 19th century, he saw the translation of El Conciliador as a project with personal and general-Jewish significance, especially when considering the period in which he was active.

The first page of the Hebrew translation of El Conciliador by Raphael Kirchheim. This is not a complete translation of the original book, but primarily a translation of the sections focusing on the Pentateuch. From the National Library of Israel collection

After all, the time in which Kirchheim lived was a period in which the unity which had characterized the Jewish people for much of their history was irreparably ruptured, a century replete with novel Jewish figures: enlightened Jews fighting to reform education and the Jewish library; Hassidim searching for a new spiritual experience; Orthodox Jews struggling to maintain the status quo; and toward the end of this tumultuous century: Zionist pioneers.

Reminiscent of the author of the work he translated into Hebrew, Kirchheim’s translation tells us a thing or two about his own boldness. Kirchheim did not suffice with simply translating, he also wrote his comments (and often reservations) on El Conciliador’s conclusions alongside various paragraphs. In one section, for example, the translator notes that “What the author writes in Rabban Gamliel’s name is a lie, and he said the opposite to his disciples”, and in a later place in the manuscript he notes that “His [Menasseh Ben Israel] words are the opposite and are not found without each other”.

It is unclear whether Kirchheim intended to publish his translation: the manuscript is full of erasures, amendments and internal glosses. Additionally, at the end of the manuscript, Kirchheim documents the names of his relatives, the deaths of his father and his two wives over ten years apart. He does not forget to record the births of his son and daughter. When writing about his daughter, for example, Kirchheim writes “The 3rd of Adar 5601 [February 2, 1841] – was happy and joyful for me because my beloved daughter Mina was born”, two days later he added the heartbreaking words, “And (she) died on the night of the 5th”.

The page which ends the Hebrew manuscript of El Conciliador in which the translator notes the history of his immediate family. Here Kirchheim records the birth of his son and daughter, and his daughter’s death a few days after her birth. From the National Library of Israel collection

Most of the details surrounding the Ben Israel/Kirchheim manuscript are still unknown to us.

However, the more pressing question is undoubtedly: can the resolution of the many contradictions in the Bible truly bring about friendship between the various members of this tumultuous nation?